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The annual 'Fat Bear Week' kicks off at Katmai National Park & Preserve

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Fire up those webcams. The deal to avoid a government shutdown means one of the National Park Service's most popular programs won't be in limbo. So let the games begin. It's nearly time for Fat Bear Week. That's when the brown bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska load up on salmon ahead of hibernation while we can watch and vote from the safety of our homes. The contest has become so popular, it can overshadow the setting these bears call home. So we called up Mike Fitz. He was a ranger at the park and now sits on the board of the Katmai Conservancy. Welcome to the show.

MIKE FITZ: Hey, thanks for having me. Always happy to talk about fat bears.

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes, we all love fat bears. Give us a sense of the landscapes that make up this park and preserve. I heard that where the bears catch salmon, that's just, like, a small, tiny portion of the park and preserve.

FITZ: That's true. Brooks River is only a mile and a half long, and Katmai is more than 4 million acres. This is one of the largest national parks. It's larger than any that you're going to find in the contiguous United States. And it's a wild landscape. I think that's the one word that I can use to describe Katmai - is wild. It has very few maintained trails, just, like, a handful of miles. It's nearly an entirely roadless landscape. It's punctuated by large lakes and tall volcanoes. It has some of the wildest coastline in North America. It's really an extraordinary place.

RASCOE: And apart from the bears, obviously, there are those salmon that the bears like to eat. But what else lives there?

FITZ: Yeah, the salmon are, you know, the heartbeat of the ecosystem. They're the thing that supports a really dense population of brown bears at Brooks River. But the whole park is home to a diversity of wild creatures - packs of wolves, moose and caribou. The coastline, especially, of Katmai is rich in wildlife. Everything from high densities of bears, some of the densest populations of bears ever recorded, to marine mammals like sea lions and whales and then also some healthy populations of sea otters, as well.

RASCOE: What area of Alaska is Katmai in? Is it hard to get to Katmai?

FITZ: Yeah, it is hard to get there. Katmai and Brooks River specifically are located about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska, right at sort of, like, the top of the Alaska peninsula. And that's the prominent finger of land that shoots out to the west towards the Aleutian Islands. And it's really kind of, like, formed on a backbone of a volcanic mountain range, the Aleutian Range. So to get to Katmai, generally, people are flying there from Anchorage and then hopping on a smaller plane to get into the park. Sometimes, maybe there's some small cruise ships that come to the coastline and things like that, but really, it's only accessible by plane or boat.

RASCOE: I gather that you were instrumental in starting Fat Bear Week. Do you feel like Fat Bear Week has been positive for the park?

FITZ: You know, Fat Bear Week started when I was still working as a ranger in Katmai. In 2014, we had, like, a one-day thing called Fat Bear Tuesday. We thought it would be fun just to see if we matched up different bears, before-and-after photos of them in early summer and in late summer and had the public decide who they thought was the fattest and most successful bear of the year. And then at that day, I knew we had to expand it into a whole week because it seemed to be so popular. And it's only grown in size since then. And I do think it's a positive for Katmai because it showcases the stories of the individual bears that use Brooks River. It helps us highlight the importance of salmon to the ecosystem and the health of Katmai National Park itself. Again, this is a wild, healthy landscape. You know, we do live in a world that's wounded by climate change, but there are places that are doing quite well. And we should realize where they are and how we can protect them going forward.

RASCOE: Before we let you go, do you have any favorites as far as the bears that you root for when it's Fat Bear Week? Or do you try to remain impartial? Or do you have a favorite fat bear?

FITZ: No, I'm not that impartial, honestly. I - there are many bears that I love to watch. And I want them all to succeed, of course. You know, bear 480 Otis this year - he is one of the older bears at Brooks River. He arrived in late July looking emaciated. But he - it was amazing to watch him because despite his profound hunger - and I can't imagine the hunger that he must have been feeling at that time - but he just did his thing like he has always done. Like, he went to the waterfall and he sat there. He didn't chase fish. He didn't fight other bears to try to steal their fish. He sat there, and he waited for the salmon to come to him. And he's bulked up tremendously over the last couple of months. There's many bears that I enjoy watching the stories of. And that's a really unique thing about watching bears on the webcams at Brooks River. You get to know these individuals.

RASCOE: We're going to keep Otis, you know, in our thoughts. And we're glad that he's doing better. I love a story where they turn it around.

FITZ: I think we admire, you know, his ability to survive and adapt despite the challenges that he faces. Yeah, so he's always a favorite.

RASCOE: That's Mike Fitz, a former ranger at Katmai National Park and now a resident naturalist for explore.org. Thank you so much for being here.

FITZ: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SPECTRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.